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Outbreak

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0. The Beginning

Five thousand years and the world still manages to surprise Methos. Not in a good way, mind. But it’s certainly a surprise when a stranger behind him grabs his shoulder and sinks his teeth into his bicep with a growl.

Methos is quick to break away, minus some flesh, and turn. That’s when he sees the clouded-over eyes, smells the pungent stench of rotting corpse. He’s never seen a creature like this before, but it’s clear that something is very wrong. His hand grasps the hilt of his sword without conscious thought.

It’s only the noise around him – people shouting out in disbelief at the scene, loudly asking questions, praying for the madman and his victim – that keep Methos from beheading the thing. He had screamed at the initial bite, and now people around him were paying attention to the scene.

The city sidewalk is busy with morning commuters. He can’t risk the questions, especially when the noise seems to confuse his attacker well enough. The monster whirls about, confused at the choice. Methos can hear the labored wheeze of its breathing beneath the noise of the crowd.

“George!” a woman sobs, pushing through the crowd. “I don’t know what happened,” she says to Methos, “He wouldn’t wake up, I thought he’d had a heart attack in his sleep and then he was like this –“ she reaches out to touch George’s shoulder.

“Ah –“ Methos says, thinking to warn her. But already George has turned with a roar and bitten the woman’s fingers clean off. It doesn’t spit them out, nor flinch at the burst of blood on its face. Its jaws open and shut with a crunch.

The woman screams and collapses and the monster follows her down. It bites and tears and rips, growling inhumanly as blood quickly pools beneath them. The crowd shifts, staggering like the monster had attacked them and crying out in horror, but it’s like all thought has collectively halted, numbed by shock. Methos grips his blade tighter but he feels as trapped to inaction as the rest of the crowd. He can’t blow his identity so publicly.

Finally, a man leaps forward to try and restrain the creature. Two more men follow, piling on the creature as it digs its fingers into the guts of the now-silent woman and brings them toward its bloody mouth. One man gets it in a headlock, and the other two each grab an arm. The creature thrashes, snapping its teeth and scrabbling with its fingers.

“Call nine-one-one!” one of the men yells over the noise of the creature. Cell phones begin to come out, some dialing and some beginning to take pictures. The creature struggles hard enough to break the headlock, and bites two of the men before they can subdue it once more. Two more men pile on to help control it. In the distance police sirens start to wail.

Methos slips away before any of the cameras point to him, shifting his sleeves the best he can to hide the nearly-healed bite. He thinks it might be time to pack his bags for a long, long trip.

 

1. The First Time (We Live)

The airport is in disarray, lights flickering and gibberish periodically sweeping across the arrival and departure boards. Military craft are on the tarmac, all civilian flights are grounded, and there’s an underlying current of panic that reminds Methos of the last time he was in a city under siege. The only reports on the news channels are vague stories and shaky footage of ever-growing crowds sweeping their way across the city in a cannibalistic fugue. Nobody knows why it’s happening or the extent to where the afflicted are or if this is something that can be contained.

Methos would buy himself a drink, but the airport bar has been out of alcohol for five hours. He’s been waiting for a flight for twenty-six, watching the number of stranded people in the airport swell until the army had arrived and chained the doors shut. Instead he’s found a windowsill facing the tarmac and propped himself in it, watching the activity.

The troops seem to be fortifying the airport, appropriating luggage carts to carry large bags of sand to the perimeter fence. They were probably meant for flooding relief before someone had the good idea to cart them up and use them as a barricade instead. Methos supposes there are worse places to be trapped. Certainly places with less obvious escape routes. There’s still running water and electricity, too. Whatever is happening outside seems to be passing over infrastructure. It’s just the people they want.

Methos folds his trench coat tighter and makes sure that the case with his weapons, ANTIQUE stamped across the top, is within easy reach. After the man had bitten him on the street, he’d taken the first available flight out. Now Methos was regretting it. His transfer flight was cancelled, leaving him effectively trapped in an unfamiliar building without his gun or garrote. He should have taken a day to figure out what was happening, but the urge to flee from trouble was practically ingrained by now. Surely there was nothing that could follow him halfway across the country, much less the world. He hadn’t thought the problem would go global so quickly, leaving him without time to get his feet under him.

On the tarmac a serious-faced head of airport security runs towards the group of military officers loosely ranged around a planning table. She says something and gestures to the far side of the airport. Whatever she said makes the ranking officer bark out an order. A handful of officers ready their weapons and jog off, gathering troops and piling into appropriated vehicles. Methos cranes his neck trying to see where they go, but they disappear beyond the edge of the window and out of sight. Those remaining around the table speak intently into their walkie talkies and satellite phones, but Methos can’t tell what they’re saying from such a distance.

“What’s going on out there?” a woman sitting in the next window asks him.

“Looks like they’re just checking the perimeter,” Methos lies. “Making sure we’re all safe.” He smiles reassuringly at the small boy who leans over the woman’s legs to look at him. He’d heard him coughing earlier while whining unhappily to his mother. Thankfully, the boy had the maturity to do it quietly in a public place. “This reminds me of a time when I was stranded in an airfield in Kathmandu for three days. Do you want to hear?”

The boy nods and his mother leans back with a grateful sigh. It’s mostly a true story, although Methos embellishes to keep the boy entertained. He draws in a few other ears and by the end of the telling he feels much more relaxed. Stories have always come naturally to him and the concentration needed to weave all the details together into a coherent narrative help to both distract and calm.

When he finishes the woman opens her eyes. “So what did you do in Nepal?” He thinks he sees more ears tilt his way as he begins his second story.

Methos is almost done when the soldiers on the tarmac, who Methos has been keeping an eye on while he speaks, all turn towards a corner of the building which Methos can’t see from his perch.

Methos keeps speaking, but an uneasy tension creeps through the crowd. Others by the window have noticed the attention of the soldiers and seen more troops jog away while prepping their weapons. Their neighbors pick up on the increased anxiety of those next to them and respond in kind, until the whole energy of the terminal is rattled. Methos finishes his story and hops up, grabbing his bags. “I’m afraid all this talking has made me hungry,” he tells the boy. “I’m going to see if I can find a restaurant still serving food. Or at the very least, a vending machine.”

The boy protests but his mother shushes him. “Thank you,” she tells Methos. A few others echo the sentiment, but most of his former listeners are too distracted with uneasily looking around, trying to pinpoint the source of anxiety in their guts. He nods and smiles and slips into the crowd.

First Methos finds a bathroom where he can arm himself in private. He breaks the seal on his sword case, tucking the sheath of his dagger at the small of his back and settling his sword in its place in the lining of his coat. The garrote, disguised as a decorative wrapping on the hilt of his sword, goes in his inner pocket. Methos wishes he had a gun, but those require much more paperwork than swords and knives. Fully armed, Methos next abandons his suitcase on a pillar next to a sleeping man. He can come back for it later, if at all. Right now he needs to find another window, one where he can see what’s going on.

Methos picks his way through the crowded airport, stepping around crowds of people sat close together on the floor and over stragglers who stretched out on the most available piece of tile. Methos is one of the few people still bothering to move around. Everyone else is simply waiting for something to happen – ideally, for the military to evacuate them out or announce that the crisis is over. Methos is sure something will happen soon, but he doubts it will be either of those two options.

Methos had pointed himself in the direction the troops on the tarmac had been facing and walked. As he works his way to the other end of the airport, the tension in the air increases noticeably. He’s going the right way, then. When the faint sound of gunshots becomes audible even through the insulating walls of the building, Methos knows he must be close.

The people hush as they catch the noise, listening closely until it peters out.

Unlike elsewhere in the airport, many people in this area have remained standing. They mill about in tight groups, stronger members unconsciously circling around the weaker. Methos makes eye contact with a man in a rumpled business suit standing at the edge of his group and approaches him. “How long has the gunfire been happening?”

“About ten minutes,” the man says. He runs a hand through greasy hair. “There was more at the beginning, but it’s been coming and going since. Getting louder, too. That’s good, right? It means soldiers are coming to help us.”

Methos agrees with the man’s assessment and concentrates on keeping his body language relaxed. He doesn’t need to start a panic or a stampede by telling the truth. Closer gunfire means the enemy is gaining ground. How long until they reached the airport? Methos should never have taken that flight out of town.

Like currents through water, subtle movements shift the crowd this way and that. Methos picks his way through it all, trying to move closer to a window with a minimal amount of disturbance. He has an advantage in that he’s not yet grouped together with his neighbors in a desire to find safety in numbers. The crowds are thick by the windows, but a lone man can worm his way through where a group would be stopped.

Finally Methos gets to a point where he can crane his neck and see a mostly unobstructed view, as long as the tall woman in front of him stands with her weight on her right leg. There’s a haze of gunpowder smoke and tear gas that obstructs where the battle must be taking place, but in the clear air closer to the airport Methos can see soldiers running. Some of them are heading towards the battle, heavily laden with extra ammunition or bandages. Others are helping or dragging fellow soldiers out of the melee, taking them around a third side of the building to where must be a medical tent. The ragged gaping holes of missing flesh that decorate the injured make many of the spectators cringe and gasp. No gun or knife could do that kind of damage.

The crowd gradually shifts until Methos’ view is completely blocked. They’re restless but passive, trusting the military to contain the threat and protect them despite the grim reality they can see outside the building. Methos can’t be locked up in this building any longer. It’s a slaughterhouse waiting to happen.

He finds a door and approaches the three TSA agents tasked to guard it with his back held straight in proper military bearing. A man in the crowd touches his arm before he gets there. “I wouldn’t do that,” he says softly. “We’re meant to stay inside.” Methos brushes by him and the movement catches the eyes of the TSA.

“Sir, stay back,” one of them says. “It’s dangerous outside. We’re keeping you here for your own protection.”

There are a lot of things Methos could say to that, but only one that will get him through the door. “I’m an army medic, on leave when this happened. There are hurt men out there and I can help. Let me through.” He continues to move towards them as he speaks, expecting their compliance to thus receive it. Methos stops only when he is within arm’s length of the man who had spoken and meets their suspicious examination with a confident glare until one of the agents unhooks the key ring from his belt.

He points at Methos aggressively. “Only you,” he announces for the benefit of the people watching the exchange. “Everyone else still needs to stay out of the line of fire.”

“Of course,” Methos agrees. He doesn’t want these people mucking up the defense of the airport any more than the TSA agents do. He simply wants to be somewhere that’s easier to run from than a secured, guarded airport. If the defense fails, no one is getting out of that building alive. There are too many people hemming each other in, and in the presence of immediate danger it’s possible they will stampede. Methos doesn’t want to test Immortal healing against whatever – whoever? – is eating people out there, and dying from a trampling is unpleasant. “I’m only going out there because I’ve had proper training.”

The agent with the key opens the door just enough that Methos can slip out. The other two watch the crowd to make sure no one starts a panic by trying to push their way through. Luckily it’s a smooth operation. Methos is on the other side of the door, squinting in the bright sunlight after spending so long inside. The air is fresh, a welcome change from the stale body odor that was beginning to accumulate inside.

A soldier who heard the clang of the door shutting notices Methos standing by the doors and deviates towards him, abandoning a crate on the ground and sticking his palm out flat to signal him to stop. Also, incidentally, a good position to be in to grab someone quickly. There’s blood smeared on his leg and left palm. “Civilians aren’t allowed on the tarmac,” he announces as he approaches.

“I’m military,” Methos calls back, “Royal Army Medical Corps. I’m here to help in the tents.”

The soldier drops his hand. Methos has the bearing of a soldier and the calm of a combat veteran. With nothing else to go on, he accepts Methos’ supposed credentials without fuss. “You on leave or something?”

Or something. Methos nods. “Got a bit more excitement than I was expecting. Luckily, I’m good with a needle and bandages.”

The soldier gestures for Methos to follow him. “You can help me carry this to the tent. We’ve got a lot of wounded coming in with big holes in ‘em. Not bullet wounds. Something else.” The soldier shudders and refuses to name it. “I’m Pentina,” he says instead. A last name, Methos assumes.

“Booker,” Methos replies. Pentina and Methos heft of the crate of medical supplies together. It’s surprisingly heavy.

“Nice to have you on board,” he says.

They carry the crate around the corner of the airport and up to the medical tent. It’s busy inside, two medics trying to tend to the wounds of dozens of soldiers. They all have the same kind of injuries: long scratches and round holes of torn-out flesh peppering skin not protected by a bulletproof vest. Doubtless those with less severe injuries are still out in the field. Here there are severed veins and arteries, ripped tendons, missing fingers, maimed faces. In a corner still forms have been draped with sheets.

One of the injured soldiers holds out a rifle. Pentina takes it and says something softly to his friend, popping out the magazine to check his ammunition. He clicks it back into place with an unhappy expression. Are they running out of ammunition already? He sees Methos watching him and nods, expression clearing, then leaves the tent. Apparently Methos is being left to his own devices.

The tent isn’t as organized as a field hospital, or as well-equipped. It looks hastily thrown together, like they’d been sent out short-staffed and on short notice. Methos approaches one of the medics who distractedly gestures to a set of people they haven’t been able to see to yet. He nabs some supplies and steps up to the first soldier whose face is wan and pale from blood loss. Her right leg is mangled and bleeding sluggishly from half a dozen places, and her right arm isn’t in much better shape. She barely responds when Methos lightly shakes her.

The basic concepts of field medicine haven’t changed since he was last a medic, and they don’t have enough supplies for any differences in the finer points to matter. Methos works while the gunfire starts and stops, getting louder each time. They’re in a slow retreat, but a retreat nevertheless. Eventually there will be no more ground to give – if the ammunition lasts that long.

Most of the people Methos treats are tight-mouthed, either distracted by their own pain or thinking back to whatever was happening further out. A few find it easier to talk. “They keep coming,” one man says while dully staring at the scratches in his palm. Methos is busy tending to his ravaged shoulder and wondering if its mobility is even capable of being salvaged. “We shot them and shot them but they just keep coming through the tear gas. People. All kinds of people.”

The hordes keep coming and the injured trickle in. Pentina comes back carrying another injured man and without his rifle. While he helps Methos settle the unconscious soldier onto a cot, Methos asks about what’s going on. “It’s not good,” he says grimly. “Most of what we’ve got is for riot control. Tear gas, water cannons.” He snorts derisively. “Rubber bullets. The real stuff has almost run out.”

Methos feels the dread he’s been harboring all day grow. He’d thought these troops had been geared up to protect this place, not calm a protest. He thinks to the officers grouped around the table, talking and arguing and finding no solutions for a losing situation. “Have they called for more supplies, maybe reinforcements – “

Pentina shakes his head. “It’s bad everywhere, man. We’re so far down the list they won’t even answer when we call.” He wipes bloody hands on his bloodier pant leg. “We just keep drawing more and more in with the noise we’re making, and they’ve started to break down other parts of the perimeter too. We’re an island out here, and we’re sinking fast.”

Then Pentina’s head is wrenched sideways.

The dead man who had previously been on the next cot over buries his teeth in his neck. Arterial spray spatters Methos and the unconscious patient while Pentina writhes in silent agony for a moment, arms clawing at his attacker to no avail. When he goes still the dead man growls, clouded eyes roving until they meet Methos’ own.

A patient nearby yells to alert the rest of the tent, but following the commotion a second covered form begins to stir. One man with bandages on both arms and his torso quickly staggers over, pressing his knee across the dead man’s throat to keep him down.

Methos’ sword is in his coat which had been left near the entrance of the tent, but his dagger is at hand. He draws it while the first dead man chews at Pentina’s throat, but the creature doesn’t react to the threat. Methos aims at the only vital spot visible at his angle and plunges it hilt-deep into the creature’s head. It collapses along with Pentina while Methos pries his weapon loose.

The gunfire starts up again, so loud they must be nearly at the windows of the airport. As usual, misfortune never comes alone.

The second corpse has begun to thrash, kicking its limbs in an uncoordinated struggle to throw off the man holding it down. The noises it is making are inhuman. Methos doesn’t bother to wipe his blade before he moves between the cots, doing what had worked once already and driving his blade into the creature’s shrouded face.

He helps the man pinning it down back to his own cot with a muted thanks.

“What the hell is happening?” he asks Methos. Others not lost in the pain of their wounds are looking at him too, as if his quick action meant that Methos must know more about these creatures.

Methos doesn’t have any idea what is happening, but one thing is apparent. “We have to get the dead out of this tent,” he says loudly for many to overhear. The soldiers won’t be happy at the insult to the dead and it will probably increase the panic within the airport to see the shrouded corpses, but whatever is happening seems to effect the dead as well as the living.

None of the injured are in good enough shape to help him and the other medics are still tending to the wounded. So Methos wraps Pentina in a sheet and hauls the corpse over his shoulder to carry. As expected some grumble, but Methos is the one person acting like he has an inkling of what’s going on. They let him pass.

There’s an area near the tent where empty crates of medical supplies and ammunition are being dumped. The stacks are serviceable enough as a wall to keep the dead soldiers out of sight of the airport, so Methos lays out Pentina’s body on the tarmac behind them. The gunfire ceases while he walks back to the tent but he can hear soldiers on the other side of the building yelling to each other.

Methos carries five more bodies outside, laying the six corpses side by side. He’s bringing out the seventh when he hears labored breathing behind him. Methos turns but there’s nothing there. The breathing moves with him and the jostled corpse begins to struggle beneath its shroud.

Wrapped as it is, there’s time enough to carry the corpse behind the stack of crates. Methos dumps the struggling body and takes out his knife, planning to dispatch it quickly. He grabs hold of its shoulder and is about to stab when a woman shouts, “Hey!” behind him.

It’s a soldier, unconscious companion laid down behind her and gun raised to point between Methos’ eyes. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you’re going to let that person go.”

Methos slowly raises his knife away from the creature to signal that he’s not aggressive, holding the hilt between palm and thumb while he opens his fingers and other hand. It’s as far as he’ll go to disarming himself in this situation. The creature hears her as well and begins to thrash with greater fervor, slowly unwrapping itself from the shroud. Methos can hear it clicking its teeth together beneath the shroud in hungry, empty bites. “That’s not a human under there,” he tells her.

She looks at the creature and the army uniform on its now-uncovered legs and doesn’t waver. “Sure looks like one to me. And you don’t look like you belong here.”

“I’m a medic,” Methos tries, “working in the tent. I’m helping people.” He points at the body with his free hand. “He was dead. Those things you’re facing out there – it’s one of them. I’m just trying to get rid of it.”

The soldier eyes the corpse again as it inches the shroud further up over its head. “We secured the perimeter. It can’t have gotten through.”

Doubt is edging into her expression, though, and Methos tries to encourage it by explaining. “It didn’t need to get through the perimeter. These things, they can take over dead people.” More accurately, Methos thinks it is the dead person, but dehumanizing the thing so he will be allowed to dispatch it is most important at the moment.

“Then why aren’t those ones moving?” She gestures to the other bodies with the barrel of her rifle.

Methos shrugs. So far, he hasn’t been able to figure out any difference between the ones that awoke and the ones that hadn’t. “Your guess is as good as mind. But we need to take care of this one.”

She seems to consider, then walks forward. “Not you. Drop the knife and take the shroud off of him. If he’s really dead, I’ll take care of it. If he’s not, I take care of you.”

Methos sheathes his knife and pins down the creature while the soldier stands nearby at the ready. It growls and fights him, but Methos finally unwraps it enough to display its head. He has to dodge a bite while he’s at it, but the clouded eyes and feral behavior convinces her. Methos shields his face with his shoulder and she puts a bullet between its eyes, scattering brain matter across the tarmac.

She looks at him for a long second, but he’s not familiar enough with her to read the expression. Finally, she walks over to the soldier she was carrying and crouches down to put two fingers on his pulse point. Methos steps up next to them. He’s now close enough to see the gaping wound in his throat and the blood soaking his vest.

The soldier rocks back onto her heels with a sigh. “We went through basic together,” she tells him. “Good man. Better friend.” She shakes her head. “He was dead before I started carrying him back.” Methos stands in respectful silence while she pats the shoulder of the corpse. She looks up after a moment’s reflection. “Are you putting all the dead ones over there?”

He nods. She gestures for him to take the dead man’s feet while she hooks her arms beneath his armpits. Together they carry him to the row of the dead, laying him next to the ex-soldier they’d dispatched moments earlier. The soldier picks up her weapon and checks it over in an automatic habit, preparing to go back out. She kneels down, propping her rifle on her knee, to say goodbye to her friend one last time. Methos turns around to return to the medical tent.

That’s when the dead friend returns from death with a terrible roar. It lunges up at the soldier looming over its head with outstretched arms, moving with far greater vitality than the other creatures had shown. Methos spins around at the noise to see the creature claw at the soldier’s face, fingers gouging into one of her eyes and hooking on bone.

She shrieks and tries to jerk backwards, firing blindly when she can’t. The soldier swings her weapon wildly as if to sever the hands grasping at her with a line of bullets, blood dripping from her face and onto that of the creature. It’s the image that Methos dies looking at as a stray bullet pierces his skull and drops him into death.

When Methos wakes up there is still screaming. This time, however, it is more than one person. He rolls onto his side, nearly blinded with a headache, to try and see what’s going on.

They had added him to the row of dead bodies, each one neatly shot through the forehead. The woman is next to him, face nearly torn to shreds along with most of the meaty section of her gun arm. The screaming is coming from beyond the stacked crates. It’s the direction of the airport. How loud does screaming have to get before you can hear it through brick and reinforced glass?

Groans and moans and growls punctuate the screaming, along with the shuffle of dragging feet on tarmac. Methos pushes himself onto his hand and knees, waiting out the head rush. It’s been a long time since he was last shot in the head, and he hasn’t missed the experience. When his vision clears and his balance returns moments later, he peels himself upwards and on to his feet.

His sword is still in the medical tent. Before making a long overdue escape from this death trap, Methos needs to retrieve it. He peers around the boxes to see a large group of reanimated creatures staggering past. Beyond them the airport windows are spattered with blood. Where it’s still possible to see through the window, figures frantically thrash and struggle as slower-moving silhouettes slowly overwhelm them. A few of the creatures outside become distracted by the motion and try to pound their way through the glass.

If anyone has managed to break open a door and make an escape route, it is not on the side that Methos can see.

Methos looks further down the tarmac, but waiting for the group to pass is not an option. Behind them are more creatures, great crowds of reanimated corpses shuffling their way towards the noisy screams of the people trapped inside. Keeping in mind what one of the soldiers had told him about noise drawing them in, the only option is to dash for the tent as quietly as possible. Methos puts years of skulking to use, drawing the attention of only those nearest to him. It’s a blessing that these things don’t seem to be capable of acting together beyond dumb herd instinct.

No one living is left in the tent, but there are blood smears that indicate it’s possible not everyone had left before the tarmac had been overrun. Methos kicks over a creature leaning against the doorpost whose leg is wrapped in bandages. He steps over its legs, grabs his coat, and ducks out again.

Methos jogs for the perimeter with his coat bundled under one arm. He has a small following of creatures staggering after him now, but as long as he moves faster than a walk they won’t catch up to him. Last time he’d gotten an anthropology degree he’d written his thesis on the theory of persistence hunting. Predators with greater endurance than prey could steadily follow their prey until exhaustion set in and the prey was too weak to fight. The irony of being subject to that very technique is not lost on him.

At the fence Methos clambers up the wall of sandbags, using the advantage of high ground to scout the area ahead. The creatures pressed against the other side of the fence lean towards him, extending grasping hands and groaning. They are everywhere, for as far as he can see. He looks for any quick, direct movements that would distinguish a human from a creature and sees nothing. He doesn’t want to look back towards the airport.

Further down the fence are planks of wood shoring up the sandbags. If he moves one to the other side of the fence then Methos can walk over the largest concentration of creatures immediately at the fence perimeter. After that, if he keeps moving and keeps his sword up, he may be able to make a run for it. Buildings aren’t safe, as the airport demonstrated, so he needs to get out of the city to somewhere with a low population and lots of land to hide himself in. His Immortal endurance should keep him going longer than any normal human, and if he can find himself a car or even a bike he can outdistance them enough to shake them off his trail.

Hands grasping at the sandbags below Methos’ feet redirect his attention. The creatures on the tarmac have caught up to him while he was planning. Luckily they seem incapable of the coordination to climb, simply pressing up against the wall and reaching towards him. Methos kicks away the hand of a taller creature and puts on his coat.

“Right,” he says to the creatures below. “It’s time to live.” Methos starts running.